Child Labour: the Hidden Issue

Child labour refers to the employment of children that socially, mentally and physically harms them, deprives children of their childhood or keeps them away from attending school. In the extreme, child labour includes children that being enslaved, exploited and exposed to serious hazards and illnesses.[1] According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), not all work done by children constitutes child labour. Work that does not affect children’s health and personal development or interfere with their schooling is generally viewed as positive.[2] Activities such as helping their parents around the home, assisting in a family business or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays considered as activities that not only contribute to their family welfare but also to children’s development.[3] They provide children with experience and skills that could help to prepare them to be productive members of society. [4]

The ILO recently released a report that estimates about 152 million of children between 5 to 17 years were subject to child labour.[5] Child labour remains concentrated primarily in agriculture (70.9 per cent), 17.1 per cent work in the services sector and 11.9 per cent of child labourers work in the industry.[6] In Indonesia, the 2016 statistic shows that at least 2 million children between 15 to 17 years are engaged in employment.[7] In addition, the ILO estimated that there are 3.2 million children between the ages of 10 – 17 years old in Indonesia engaged in employment with some involved in the worst forms of child labour.[8] What is more, over the last decade the number of reported working children in Indonesia hovers between 1 to 3 million. This number could be greater if it includes children who work as domestic workers, involves in the informal sector or working on the street. Looking at the statistic, it is safe to say that child labour is a persistent issue.

Child labour continues to exist even national laws and international standards are in place. It is likely that the current regulatory and standards approach could not effectively stir the underlying issues of child labour. The cause of child labour, though it seems clear to regulators, are lingering in the discourse of poverty. Nearly half of the global population lives on less than US$ 2.50 per day.[9] About 400 million children in the world live in extreme poverty[10]. Although, laws and regulations regime rigidly limit the employment of people below the age of 18, without addressing poverty the policy would not be effective to eradicate the issue of child labour.

Another underlying issue is employment rate. When unemployment rate is relatively high – economy in poor shape and jobs are scarce, families could not make ends meet. It is not surprising that in this condition, children would be the first that negatively affected. They do not only have to drop out from school but also often must lend a hand so that their family could attain basic necessities by engaging in the employment of some sort. On the extreme, children often forced to work and exploited to pay their family’s debt which was used to attain those basic necessities.

Access to education is also an influencing factor to the child labour issue. Education could help children and subsequently communities’ future opportunities. Some argue that public policy of compulsory education is sufficient to tackle the issue. However, it could be argued that compulsory education program is not enough to answer the issue of children education because it still bears a significant cost to poor working families. In Indonesia, the compulsory education is 9 years or until junior secondary school level. Nonetheless, the World Bank estimates that only 55% of children from low-income families enrolled in junior secondary school.[11] This means that 45% of children from a poor working family in Indonesia only have an elementary education. By eliminating cost of education, the possibility of children staying at school could be improved and subsequently better-off their their opportunities.

Social norms could also contribute to the proliferation of child labour. Every so often, very young age children are forced to plunge into the labour market because in some context the practice has been so widespread that it becomes socially accepted. For instance, child labour in the tobacco and cocoa plantation is perceived as normal because for so long children work in plantations to help their families. Education is also a key to break this accepted norm. Not only it increases parents and adult awareness level on the idea of child labour and children welfare but also when the educated children grow up they could make informed decisions on the issue of working children.

Lastly, although some might fail to see the connection, the intensification of the global economy most likely exacerbates the issue. As multinational corporations move across borders, countries often compete for jobs, investment and industry. This competition sometimes decelerates child labour reform for the obvious purpose of lower labour cost. In more moderate perspective, the state provides exemption on the use of child labour in the industry to ease corporation burden on accountability and expanding jobs market to people younger than 15 years of age (or 18 years in the case of Indonesia). Additionally, the complexity of multinational supply chains may intensify the use of child labour. International supply chains often consist of multi-layer suppliers and subcontractors including home workers. Cheaper price, which is the primary reason for using subcontractors and homeworkers, lead to the employment of low-cost labour, and one of the low-cost workers group is obviously children.

Indonesia regulatory regime has a long way to go in order to tackle the underlying issues of child labour. The government should review the inconsistent children-related policy to get a holistic solution. For instance, the state compulsory education program should be expanded so that it includes children between 15-17 years old which the National Labour Regulations deems as children (which bears consequence of child labour label). The state may also want to review its labour policy to ensure decent jobs are available for the working-age people (those 18 years and above). Policy on education, one of the primary vehicles to combat child labour, could be revisited to ensure its accessibility for all children.  In addition to that, establishing robust welfare policy could lighten poverty – issue that has significant relations with the proliferation of child labour. Also, regulator extensive knowledge and analysis about the current and future global economy practice could bring about effective regulatory strategy that likely ease the stubborn issue of child labour in industry.

[1] International Labour Organization, What is Child Labour (viewed on 11 October 2017) < http://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang–en/index.htm&gt;.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] International Labour Organization, Modern Slavery and Child Labour (19 September 2017) <http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_574717/lang–en/index.htm>.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Koran Jakarta, Jumlah Tenaga Kerja Anak Semakin Meningkat (12 October 2016) < http://www.koran-jakarta.com/jumlah-pekerja-anak-terus-meningkat/&gt;.

[8] Schuster Institute, Outline of Production: Palm Fruit to Product (viewed on 11 October 2017) <http://www.schusterinstituteinvestigations.org/indonesias-palm-oil-industry>.

[9] Children International, Global Poverty Facts (viewed on 11 October 2017) < https://www.children.org/global-poverty/global-poverty-facts/facts-about-world-poverty&gt;.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The World Bank, World Bank and Education in Indonesia <1 September 2014) <http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/indonesia/brief/world-bank-and-education-in-indonesia&gt;.

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